Choosing Vendors: When Biggest Isn’t Best

You’d think a call-center expert—particularly one that provides staffing and services for some of the largest call centers in existence in wireless communications, healthcare and membership organizations and has some serious customer management requirements—would buy from the biggest customer-relationship software vendor in town. Wouldn’t you?

Think again.

Spherion Corp., the $2.7-billion technology recruitment, outsourcing and services company, knows all too well the rigors of keeping busy call centers up and running around the clock. But the vendors the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based personnel-services company has selected to help meet its customer relationship management (CRM) needs may surprise you.

Rather than opting for the biggest household names, Spherion has selected and integrated a number of smaller, lesser-known products. Why?

“Rather than get locked in with one provider with a full (CRM) suite, we decided on best in class,” says Tom Sultenfuss, vice president of customer development solutions. “The larger suites are more expensive and not as focused on some of the things we’d like them to be focused on.”

Historically, call centers have tended to gravitate toward lesser-known, specialized products, rather than a single, all-purpose enterprise suite of CRM tools from an SAP or Siebel, says Chris Fletcher, vice president and research director with the Boston-based Aberdeen Group. “Call centers have been out there a long time, but CRM is a relatively new initiative,” says Fletcher.

Because call centers tend to build their infrastructure around the routers and switches they already have in place, they have tended to build their software platforms one piece at a time. “It’s like a house in New England,” quips Fletcher. “They just keep adding one room at a time for hundreds of years.”

At the same time, full-suite vendors seldom have the depth of functionality that best-of-breed products do, Fletcher says. While buying a full suite provides customers with a high level of integration and “one dog to kick” if things go wrong, they also lack some of the specifics that heavy-duty CRM users like call centers need to thrive, he adds, such as modules designed to allow agents to monitor (and, hopefully, improve) their own performance levels.

In Spherion’s case, a variety of tools is fulfilling its CRM needs. The call-center outsourcing business is using eGain’s suite of products for e-mail and knowledge-base management; E.piphany for customer analytics; and Witness Systems’ eQuality suite for automated voice and data monitoring. The company employs Avaya’s Definity communication switches coupled with IEX’s Total View resource management tools.

Tying them all together is workforce-management software developer Performix. Through its Emvolve management application, Performix provides call-center agent analyses for Spherion’s associates and management.

Performix’s Emvolve provides performance management. The software reports on the length of each call taken by an agent; the total number of calls each agent handles in a given time period; and the amount of time each agent spends taking calls. Siebel Call Center 7, the latest release of Siebel’s call-center module, for example, provides only some of these kinds of reports, and at a lesser level of detail.

Spherion implemented its first 250 copies of Performix in March and plans to have another 400 copies implemented by the end of May. Spherion’s current plan calls for implementation of 900 seats total across five call-center locations nationwide.

Since it began using Performix in a pilot program late last year, Spherion has seen the average length of time that agents spend on calls decline by 10 percent, says Sultenfuss. The company also has improved by a few percentage points its efficiencies in scheduling, mainly by keeping closer track of the amount of time agents spend answering calls and improving overall call quality. Quality, in Spherion’s case, is rated by third-party companies that listen in on random calls and “grade” agents on how well they handle clients.

Before implementing Performix, “the (call center) supervisor gathered data and noted it on an easel in the hallway,” Sultenfuss says. The Performix tools are helping Spherion do everything from “running it (the call center) more efficiently, to increasing agents’ productivity.”

Spherion’s IT department has worked with each of the CRM vendors to implement their individual products, as well as to tie them together. The IT department also has made sure to build interfaces among the point products and corporatewide systems like e-mail, so that information (such as the length of each agent’s cycle time in turning a call around) can be sent to those agents and their supervisors in as close to “real time” as possible, Sultenfuss says.

Would he have custom built his CRM suite from scratch, were Sultenfuss to do it all over again today? No question, Sultenfuss says. “Our goal is to partner with the best in class application providers in the call center industry.”